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Saturday, August 30, 2014
- The decentralisation of Chile’s public schools, which were handed over to the municipalities to run in 1981, gave rise to a de facto segregation that has cast a shadow over several generations of Chileans.
Patricia Durán and Erna Sáez are the head teachers at two municipal schools in the region of Valparaíso, on the Pacific coast 140 km northwest of Santiago.
They both rise before dawn and have long working days as the principals of primary schools serving students between the ages of four and 14.
But the realities they face every day could not be more different.
Durán’s school is attended by 167 girls and boys, 90 percent of them from poor, marginalised families. The San Judas Tadeo school is located on a steep slope of the San Juan de Dios hill in Valparaíso, the regional capital.
“In many cases their fathers or mothers are in prison or are drug addicts or alcoholics, and the only hope these kids have for the future is the education we can give them,” Durán said.
“Social risk and vulnerability are fought with affection,” Durán told journalists from several South American countries who visited the school, invited by IPS.
“We are very concerned about keeping the school clean for them, because we know that in their homes they often do not even have access to the most basic hygiene,” she added.
The school is open from 8:00 to 19:00 and serves the children breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack, financed by the national office for school aid and scholarships, JUNAEB.
The school is mainly made of wood and sheet metal, the materials used in poorer constructions in Chile; the classrooms are small and every single inch is in use. But the staff makes sure that everything is tidy, colourful and bright.
Fifteen minutes from the hill, in the centre of Viña del Mar – a city described as the tourist capital of Chile – Erna Sáez heads the República del Ecuador school, attended by some 500 girls, around half of them from lower-income families.
“At 7:30 in the morning, the inspector stands in the doorway to check that all of the girls are well-dressed, with their hair brushed, and clean,” says Sáez, who adds that none of the students come from families so poor that they actually go hungry.
Nevertheless, 260 meals are served in a cafeteria furnished with colourful chairs and tables. Classes are given in two shifts: from 8:00 to 12:00 and 12:00 to 4:00, and the students are bussed to and from school.
The big two-story building was completely rebuilt after the 2010 earthquake. It is a solid brick and mortar building with large, brightly lit classrooms, a huge computer lab, a science lab, a large playground and a gymnasium.
Both schools have libraries, but the different sizes and number of books are another reflection of the gap between the two schools.
In Chile the breach, however, is not between poorly financed public schools and well-funded private educational institutions. Both of these schools are public, but they depend on municipalities with highly unequal access to funds.
Viña del Mar benefits from the abundant revenue brought in by tourism, and the city has a 15 percent poverty rate. In the neighbouring Valparaíso, meanwhile, 22 percent of the local population is poor, compared to the national average of 14 percent.
Valparaíso is the city with the largest number of slums in the country, and fully one-third of Chile’s slum-dwellers live in the region of Valparaíso.
And of 50 countries measured in 2010 in terms of social segregation in schools by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) International Institute for Educational Planning, Chile was the most unequal, assigned 53 points – far higher than neighbouring countries like Uruguay (38), Brazil, Argentina (39) and Colombia (40).
In 2006, tens of thousands of students took to the streets, leading a wave of protests that posed a serious challenge to the government of moderate socialist President Michelle Bachelet during her first term in office (2006-2010).
They were demanding a reform of the educational system implemented by the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which transferred the administration of public schools from the Education Ministry to the country’s 345 municipalities, and permitted the creation of state-subsidised private schools.
The student movement is demanding that public primary and secondary schools be put back under the control of the central government.
Bachelet, who was sworn in for a second term in March this year, is facing the challenge of reforming an educational system that is the main source of social discontent, and which prompted students around the country to pour into the streets again, in even larger numbers, under the administration of right-wing former president Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014).
In nearly every country around the world, the state is the main provider of education, as a public service.
But in Chile, any private individual or institution can open a school, wherever they want. And if they are able to draw students, the state has to pay them a subsidy per student.
Subsidised private schools with large student bodies can be profitable, because they also charge parents tuition.
Several different kinds of education coexist in Chile: private education, subsidised private education – both for-profit and non-profit – and municipal public schools.
The allotment of funds to municipal schools not only depends on the coffers of each municipality, many of which are severely cash-strapped, but also on aspects like student attendance levels.
When attendance is poor, funding shrinks – and this has serious repercussions for the poorest areas.
This kind of free market education has undermined and broken down public education, as demonstrated by the following chart:
But it is not clear that privatisation of the educational system has improved the quality of education, several experts said at a May 22-23 seminar for journalists organised by IPS (Inter Press Service) in Santiago, with support from the Norwegian government.
What does stand out is the growing segregation that marks the system, said Juan Eduardo García Huidobro of the Alberto Hurtado University’s Centre for Educational Research and Development (CIDE), who presided over the Education Advisory Council during Bachelet’s first term.
The San Judas Tadeo school clearly needs more funds. The staff makes an enormous effort to keep attendance rates up and ensure that the students reach a minimally acceptable level on the assessment tests – something that appears to be easier to achieve in the school in the nearby Viña del Mar.